One of the questions I get asked the most is “where do you get your ideas from”? I suppose this is something I should expect when writing about horrible, horrific things. When you spin tales about epic cosmic monsters, of beasts that live in the void between space, preternatural diseases, or even just about the chilling darkness that could exist in one’s heart; I suppose it makes people curious. (I wonder, do people ask this of romance writers? Of non-fiction writers?)
I always struggle to find a suitable answer. I am often inspired by mundane things, by random thoughts, and sleep-deprived wonderings. Once I get that tiny seed of an idea, I mull it over for a few days. I work through it in my head to the point where it usually ends up in a place far away from where it began, unrecognizable and twisted. The journey each idea takes is always unique. How do I lay it out step by step to someone who has only seen the finished product?
Take my story, “Falling” (published in Issue 34 of Sanitarium Magazine in 2015.) In the tale, two sisters are discussing a mysterious ailment the eldest one suffers. The doctors are baffled but the younger, more embittered sister, refuses to believe it is as bad as it is. The inspiration for this story came from my first year living in Japan. I am a Canadian and – stereotypically so – deal terribly with high temperatures. The first school I taught at was very traditional, out in a rural area. Female teachers had to wear business skirts, jackets, and blouses with panty-hose at all times. In the summer, the temperatures could be as high as 30 degrees Celsius (that’s 85 degrees Fahrenheit for my readers in the Bahamas, Belize, the Cayman Islands, Palau and the United States) and the humidity was stifling. Teachers also were not allowed to have water at hand in class and my school had neither air conditioning or heating in the winter (where windows were often left open to help ‘ventilate’ against germs.)
At the high point of summer, I started getting dizzy spells. Oftentimes, laying down, it felt like I was sinking or spinning when my eyes were closed. I often thought about how creepy it would be to open my eyes and find, in fact, I had started to sink into the bed or floor. The feeling was always worse when my eyes were closed, like the sister in the story. I imagined how one would try and combat this “sinking” and how it would affect the body or look like to a spectator. You can imagine how it might be worrying to be dizzy every day, to feel like my body was moving without my permission when my eyes were closed, and to have no idea what was causing it.
Eventually one morning, I couldn’t get up. Every time I tried, the room span as though I were in my washing machine’s spin cycle, and I would inevitably end up tilting over and tumbling to my knees or against a table. I had to call my company to send a Japanese speaking representative to take me to a doctor (my Japanese was alright but not good enough to tell a doctor what was going on.) After a few tests, they found out my blood pressure had dropped to dangerously low levels due to the high heat and dehydration. The doctor scolded me in Japanese for not drinking enough water (tell that to the school please!) and sent me home with medication to help boost my blood pressure.
So, when I wrote “Falling,” I tried to incorporate that feeling of insecurity, of worry, and of the uncertainty one can have when one’s body isn’t behaving as it should. Being me, I also twisted it to have supernatural overtures.
While everyday occurrences in my life often influence my writing, I also find that my love of mythology, fairy tales, and folk tales, have affected my ideas. Take my story, “The Family Home” (published in Shadows in Salem from Fundead Publications in 2016.) The tale centers around Mr. and Mrs. Althaus, who have been forced to move back to Mr. Althaus’ family home due to financial trouble. Small and cramped, Mrs. Althaus isn’t impressed with the place and wants to remodel despite her husband’s objections. Taking matters into her own hands, she discovers a gruesome secret buried beneath the flagstones of the fireplace. Now, if you haven’t read it yet, you might want to stop here because explaining my inspiration ruins the end.
Still here? You should definitely read the grim tale. Click here and you can get it for only $15 or free if you have Kindle Unlimited! Just read it right quick and come back. I’ll wait.
As the wives of Mr. Althaus’ cousins explain, the Althaus family originally came from Germany. The name Althaus actually means “old house” in German. Now the Althaus family has always had amazing luck – they were untouched by the Salem witch trials and their businesses never suffered in any economy. Mrs. Althaus is told that this good luck all began when four brothers in the family married four sisters from another family. On their wedding night, all four sisters went missing. Each brother had his own house and each house has its own fireplace that is never touched by the future generations even as the house is remodeled around the fireplace.
You can see where this is going.
“Immurement” is a common theme in German folklore (as well as folklore from England, Africa, and others) – that is, when someone is walled up or buried within a building’s foundation. Sometimes, this was done as punishment but other times it was to solve or prevent a calamity like a plague or invasion, or even as a human sacrifice to give buildings invincibility, good luck, and protection from evil. Now, I am not even sure as to how I ever heard of this but I read something about it when I was super young.
If you’re curious, one such tale is about the Vestenberg Castle in Germany. Apparently when it was being built, the mason built a seat in one of the walls, gave a crying child an apple to keep it quiet, and then walled it in.
As a final example, let’s look at my story “Godmouth,” which appeared as the featured story in Hinnom Magazine 002 this year. I talked briefly about the inspiration behind it in my author spotlight with the editor, C.P. Dunphey, but I’ll elaborate a bit on it more here. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it – A. because I wrote it and B. because it’s one of my best stories to date.
The idea behind the cosmic Godmouth came by accident. I heard someone sleep-talking and thought they said it. Naturally, they didn’t remember saying it when they woke up and I can’t even be sure that’s what they said for sure since they were mumbling, but the strange word stuck to me. I thought about how a mad idea could be passed unwillingly from one person to the next – by accident, on purpose, through a chance encounter. A lot of the themes in “Godmouth” were inspired by H.P. Lovecraft as well. I get asked why some people are affected by Godmouth while others are not. Simply put, it is similar to “The Call of Cthulhu.” In Lovecraft’s tale, those more artistically inclined, more susceptible to flights of fancy are driven mad by the re-awakening of the ever-dreaming Cthulhu. In the same way, those affected by the cult of the Godmouth are the same people not happy with the way life is, they imagine and desire something more. And they get it, albeit, in not the fashion they wanted.
Sadly, I can’t really outline the path “Godmouth” took. This is one of my rare stories that is inspired by such a tiny thing and goes through such a long journey in my mind, over many months and daydreaming moments, that it became something so much more. One day it was a misheard word and the next, it was a story of spiraling madness and a cosmic hunger.
As mentioned in my post about my writing process, I never write an outline down, I don’t create webs of ideas, or construct a skeleton of basic plot. Everything exists in my head, a ripe victim for being forgotten or mislaid if a different, more interesting idea catches my interest. Sometimes, I can remember the inspiration to my stories, like “Falling,” “The Family Home,” and “Godmouth.” Other times, I just forget and the story is what it is.
Thanks for reading, everyone! While I am sad to see the temperatures rising again to a hellish 40’C (90’F for you crazy non-metric people out there,) at least Oktoberfest beers are back!
Until next Sunday! And show me some love by sharing, using the buttons below!
x P.L. McMillan